MN Legislature Passes Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA)

St. Paul, Minnesota – The Minnesota Legislature passed the VRJA overnight and signed it as part of the Omnibus State Government Policy and Finance bill. In response, the Veterans Defense Project releases the following statement:
The VRJA is landmark legislation that is the product of cooperative work by prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, social workers, and the State and Federal Departments of Veterans Affairs. It will serve as a national model for other states seeking to restore justice-involved veterans to the community of law-abiding citizens.
Throughout the history of warfare, veterans have brought societies’ wars home with them. While the vast majority of veterans return as incredibly valuable assets to their communities, some bring their wars home through criminality. Modern, Western societies have failed by approaching these crimes punitively rather than recognizing the crime as a product of war for which we all share responsibility. Until now. Fighting the longest war in American history with repeated deployments, America’s veterans are entering the criminal justice system due solely to their PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and related substance abuse conditions. They pose a unique public safety risk if their trauma goes untreated and they are not properly reintegrated into their communities.
The rise and growth of Veterans Treatment Courts (VTCs) and veteran sentencing statutes across the country has been a welcome response to this crisis and they hold the promise to help seize this opportunity for reintegration. Unfortunately, VTCs are still relatively few in number, and they lack consistent protocols and practices, leading to disparate outcomes and many missed opportunities to bring justice-involved veterans the rest of the way home.
What does VRJA do?
● Provides a specialized sentencing structure for Veterans who are found to have committed criminal offenses as a result of a service-related condition. They are given the opportunity to avoid jail time and a criminal conviction if they complete all recommended treatment and abide by other conditions ordered by the court. “We broke them in our wars, we have an obligation to fix them rather than punish them.” Pete Orput – Washington County Attorney.
● Provides uniformity to Minnesota’s existing Veterans Treatment Courts, each of which currently uses different models. “The Justice a Veteran Receives should not depend on which side of a county line they live on.” – Tommy Johnson, Veterans Advocate.
● Provides a structure for jurisdictions that do not have Veterans Treatment Courts to follow in individual Veteran cases.
● The judge determines eligibility. A Veteran who wants the benefit of the VRJA must release records to the judge to show the veteran’s offense is due to service-related trauma.
Once a veteran is deemed eligible for the VRJA, what happens next?
● Eligible Veterans enter a guilty plea, but that plea is not accepted and the conviction is stayed. The Court places the Veteran on probation with conditions for supervision including treatment, education, and rehabilitation tailored to the Veteran’s needs.
● The Court, the treatment program, the county veterans service officers, probation agents, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs collaborate to maximize services and benefits to the Veteran and carefully monitor the Veteran’s performance.
● If the Veteran violates the conditions of probation, the Court may elect to convict the Veteran of their crime and/or sentence them to jail.
At the end of the probationary period a hearing is held to determine whether the Veteran has met the Court’s expectations.
● At that hearing, the Court hears from the Veteran, the prosecution, probation, and any victims to evaluate the veteran’s rehabilitation against the harm of the offense.
● The Veteran must demonstrate to the Court that the conditions of probation have been met, that the veteran has benefited from the treatment and services provided and is no longer a danger to the community.
If the terms of probation have been met, charges are dismissed.
The VRJA also saves money. The official fiscal note prepared for the Minnesota Legislature estimates savings of over $1 million dollars per year.
“The VRJA constitutes an admittedly different approach from the status quo, but one that is distilled from hard-won lessons, learned on the front lines of VTCs across Minnesota and the rest of the country. In offering justice-involved veterans a path to avoid a criminal conviction, a criminal charge becomes an invaluable intervention opportunity. It powerfully incentivizes veterans to take responsibility for their actions, to complete challenging treatment programs, to bridge the divide they feel between themselves and society, to restore their honor and, once again, become an asset to their communities. In doing so, it also best protects public safety in the short and long term.” Brock Hunter, Co-Founder of the Veterans Defense Project
The VRJA has earned the support of the following criminal justice and veterans policy stakeholders:
Minnesota County Attorneys Association (MCAA)
Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)
Minnesota State Board of Public Defenders
The American Legion
Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL)
Disabled American Veterans (DAV)
Minnesota Social Service Association
Paralyzed Veterans of America
Violence Free Minnesota
American Veterans Association (AMVETS)
Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA)
Jewish War Veterans of the United States
Military Order of the Purple Heart
Marine Corps League

VETERANS DEFENSE PROJECT

Promoting the effective and vigorous defense of Military Veterans in criminal court.

Mission

and

Vision

Mission:

Restoring veterans involved in the criminal justice system to the communities they served.

Vision:

A culturally competent criminal justice system that ensures veterans get the holistic services and supports they have earned to help them succeed in the communities they served.

Defending veterans can be among the most rewarding experiences a defense attorney can have.

We can help repay our nation’s debt to these heroes for their services and sacrifice.

The VDP will continue to ensure our veterans receive as vigorous a defense in the courtroom as they provide our nation on the battlefield.

THE MINNESOTA INITIATIVE

IN THE NEWS

Noteworthy news stories that promote public awareness about recent or important events that relate to the Veterans Defense Project and the rehabilitation of criminally-involved veterans.

Serving Those Who Served: Veterans Get Mentorship Training In NE Philly

Veterans who have struggled since returning from the battlefield don’t have to look far for a helping hand. Their fellow former soldiers are being trained as mentors during a two-day “boot camp” in Northeast Philadelphia. These volunteers know what it’s like — they’ve been there.

Veterans court gives vets charged with crimes second chance

When Ryan Harbaugh of Old Forge returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2011, the substance abuse problem that plagued him most of his adult life escalated. Unable to cope with the stress of returning to civilian life, the 31-year-old Army veteran said he drowned his problems with alcohol. He’s not alone. …

CTN Spotlight: Veterans Court Celebrates 5 Years in Anoka County

Veterans Court was introduced to Anoka County in November of 2012, and since then, over 30 graduates have successfully completed the program.

St. Cloud Times Recognizes Brock Hunter for his Work with Veterans in the Criminal Justice System

Horrific battlefield injuries — physical and mental. Frustrating struggles for medical care of those injuries months and years after military discharge. Families, relationships, and civilian lives changed forever. And stunning numbers of veterans contemplating suicide, to say nothing of the 686 veterans of all ages in Minnesota who did end their own lives between 2007…

Veterans praise Ramsey County veterans court as life-changing

Eleven years ago, Charles King returned home from an Army deployment in Iraq angry and wary of the world and people around him. The distance between the combat mechanic and the rest of the world widened until he landed in Ramsey County District Court in 2013 for a domestic incident. The timing was fortuitous —…

Treatment court gives veterans stability, sobriety and a second chance

David Belcher returned from the Iraq war broken. The platoon sergeant suffered a traumatic brain injury when four guys beat him up with a tire iron and suffered from post-traumatic stress after an officer in his command who was a good friend was killed. He started having seizures and started taking prescription drugs. Depressed and…

The attorney’s guide to defending veterans in criminal court

Introduction

For as long as warriors have returned from battle, some have brought their war home with them, bearing invisible wounds that haunt in the present. These echoes of war—manifested in self-destructive, reckless, and violent behavior—reverberate through society, destroying not only the lives of these heroes, but their families and communities.